The Unreality of Reality

Posted on: 2022-02-15

I ran across an article about Gnosticism this morning and it has got me thinking. To pull out a few points

From the article:

In Greek, Gnosis means “knowledge,” and to be a Gnostic is to claim to possess a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge that the world isn’t the reality it supposes to be.

So basically it’s religion for super-fans of The Matrix.

In many ways life seems to becoming increasingly detached from reality.

In politics it has become routine to shamelessly lie, distort and deflect. This isn't some kind of subtle trick - it's obvious. It's in your face. In some ways that seems to be the point.

This works in a few ways, by leaders saying something that is obviously untrue is a projection of power. The power to shape reality. The power to not have to worry about 'your' reality or reality at all. It also helps as a kind of destabilizing force - project an ongoing constantly changing inconsistent narrative makes it's kind of hard to pin anything down. Yesterday a politician says that white supremacists are "good people" and today "racism is bad". So which is it? Almost all of the time going with the first/most horrible thing said is what they meant. The later statements are in effect "cover". Much like saying something terrible and then saying "it's just a joke".

Putin has a more "advanced" version of the technique called non-linear warefare. Here it's not a question of covering up yesterdays mistake of revealing (if only slightly) who you really are. With non-linear warefare you support a wide array of contradictory views - even those contradicting your own. You do this to destabilize. You do this to stir confusion, and disrupt reality. If nobody can agree on reality it's going to be hard to organize against.

Technology is also increasingly blurring reality. The most obvious example of this would be social media. Within it each person is in their own "bubble" of "things they like" or probably more accurately things that third parties can use to manipulate them. Interestingly the people paying for the manipulation do not care what the result of this manipulation is as long as from their point of view it gets them some some net benefit or at worst is at benign. That doesn't mean it doesn't cause a huge amount of harm - such as promoting fascism or white supremacy.

At one level you have the harm of living in a bubble. At another level the contents of that bubble are there for the gain of unseen parties. With Facebook or whoever mediating and profiting from this state of affairs.

It's probably worth pointing out the 'invisible hand' of a social media isn't a person. It's an algorithm, that is trying to maximize some result, that is believed to be to the benefit of the usually paying unseen parties. It does not require an 'evil' person to be directly in the loop deciding how to promote evil things. It is an unthinking AI algorithm that is doing so based on a huge amount of factors that are unseen and perhaps hard to even articulate. To believe that you can even perceive what the manipulation is, much less control against it is wishful thinking.

Whilst it is not necessary for a person to be directly involved in promoting 'evil' things, people can and do direct the AI to do so. Which leads to another benefit from the point of view of the social media providers - they can claim that when bad things happen it's not their problem or responsibility. Sometimes they'll "tweak" the algorithm, and we are all good. Unsurprisingly that doesn't change anything.

Distorting reality is a dangerous super power. Cambridge Analytica shows how pervasive surveillance and covert manipulation can be used in politics.

Facebook recently changed it's name to Meta - because it hopes it will control the metaverse

From the article:

First coined in Snow Crash by the sci-fi novelist Neal Stephenson, the term metaverse originally described a virtual world where people flee to escape a dystopian real one.

The combination of Facebook and the dystopia of "the metaverse" seems like a terrifying worst case scenario.

One thing reality has going for it is it's a level playing field. The physics that controls your life controls my life. The physics we have here on Earth is the same as on the moon, or a planet light years away. 'Physics' is an actual shared reality we all inhabit. It's the substrate that everything runs on. Physics does provide hard limits on what one can and cannot do.

With an actual metaverse that's not true. The substrate can be changed at any time for any reason. You can be surveilled and manipulated in ways that today might be hard to imagine. The owners of the metaverse will in effect be gods. I'm sure that's part of the appeal.

The original article talks about people starting to see this problem and embracing more "real" things. I'm not so sure. For one thing the last few decades have shown that convenience routinely trumps any other concern. For another it's becoming increasingly easy to push people into some sort of dependence. From the requirement of having a smart phone to do may things in the real world (like park a car), to having to be on social media to not have FOMO.

The article also talks about how twitter in some ways is a "real place". That is an interesting point. At one level of course twitter is part of reality, in so far there are real electrons in a computer somewhere that put text on your screen that says things. The text of course could be complete rubbish.

Unless we can find a way to return to some kind of shared reality it's hard to see how democracy can really work. Which is probably why democracy is failing in so many places around the world. That being the case doing something about social media and arguably media in general isn't just some nice thing to do, it's probably one of the most important and consequential things we can do.